The Middle Eastern Matryoshka
Fighting terrorism and safeguarding oil security remain Russia's priority in the region
By Hichem Karoui  ·  2016-06-07  ·   Source: | NO. 23 JUNE 9, 2016

Soldiers upload missiles onto a Su-34 fighter bomber at the Khmeimim airbase in Latakia Governorate of Syria on December 20, 2015 (XINHUA)

"Putin and the Kremlin have made it clear that they seek to restore Russia as a great power. Indeed, they have sought to project the image of Russia as having already become a great power once again."

The quote is from a study published by Springer Science in 2008 comparing President Putin to the former General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, who led the Soviet Union's intervention in Afghanistan from 1979.

The study concluded that at the time, Russia had actually blown up its prospects to replace the United States as the Middle East's largest authority.

But have the tables turned in 2016 as U.S. influence continues to drain from the region?

Against unilateralism 

Sergey Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, attempted to address this question in the influential journal Russia in Global Affairs, on March 30. "International relations today are too complex a mechanism to be managed from one center," according to Lavrov.

The only way to solve the world's problems, he opined, is through a multipolar system of consultation and joint action between leading nations. Lavrov claimed that agreements could be reached whenever this approach is employed.

"Experience shows that when these principles are applied in practice, it is possible to achieve concrete and tangible results," he said. Among such results were the agreements that settled disputes concerning the Iranian nuclear program, the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons, the coordination of conditions for truce in Syria, and the development of key parameters of a global climate agreement.

In the article, Lavrov admits that Russia did go through a period when it encouraged a unilateral approach to encourage artificial transformations abroad, which is why Russia knows from experience that multipolar diplomacy is the most effective way to solve international conflict resolution.

Lavrov is probably right—the world would be much a better place if the international system embraced multipolarity.

If that is the correct assessment, it raises the question: Should we consider non-state actors as part of the multipolar system?

The S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft weapon system developed by Russia passes by Red Square of Moscow on May 9 during the country's celebration of the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany during World War II (XINHUA)

Fighting anarchy 

The Middle East that emerged from the ashes of World War II used to be a region composed of nation states. That has now changed as the area has become increasingly fragmented, and non-state organizations have assumed prominent roles.

It is important to remember that the Syrian crisis, which brought conflict and cooperation between Moscow and Washington, is still far from being resolved. Therefore, the verdict is still out on whether or not the United States and Russia are in full control of the situation.

Russia's priority is to pool its efforts against terrorism. In the words of Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Russian Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, "Extremists from ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the like for the first time could take large territories in Syria and Iraq under their control." Lukyanov stated that "they are trying to spread their influence to other countries and regions, and they are committing terrorist acts around the world."

Russia needs to strengthen its ties and build trust amongst the countries it is trying to receive cooperation from in the Middle East in order to deal with issues related to Syria, Yemen, Libya, terrorism and more. Has Moscow managed to forge these ties? If it had done so, we would have had a different situation to contend with at this point in time.

Hence the question: Does Russia have a Middle East strategy?

These are the questions that the people in the Middle East and Russia are clamoring to hear answers to: What actually drives Russia's venture in the Middle East—is it power politics? Is it about the fight against terrorism? Perhaps it is an attempt to gain a position of influence through the delusions of grandeur brought about by its experiences as a former superpower?

The answer may even be all of the above. If that is the case, then Russia's Middle East policy—which reflects its national interests—cannot just be composed of holding a single base in the city of Tartus in Syria. Nor is the idea of supporting a ruler against all odds acceptable. That doesn't make sense either.

In the absence of clear-cut answers, we are reduced to making hypotheses.

The first and most plausible motivation is to secure a source of energy. The nice speeches from Russia about protecting legitimate governments or the declarations from the United States about fighting for democracy are fundamentally about material interests. Moscow is no more interested in defending the status quo in Syria, Iraq, and other countries than the United States or the Gulf monarchies are in encouraging democratic change in the region.

Since energy security was the main driver behind U.S. policy in the Middle East for much of the 20th and 21st centuries, would Russia's motives in the region be much different?

Power politics 

In his book Colder War, Marin Katusa presented an interesting point explaining Moscow's hold on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: "Syria's position is a key continental crossroads between the energy riches of Eurasia and the Middle East and the energy-hungry markets of Europe. If Assad loses control, the new regime could allow cheap Qatari gas to flow via Syria to the Mediterranean, which would undermine (the Russian-owned energy giant) Gazprom's dominance in the European gas market."

Two opposing projects may actually explain the violence of the confrontation over Syria.

According to Lakovos Alhadeff, author of The 21st Century War for Iran's Oil and Natural Gas, "Gazprom agreed to construct and manage the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline, which would bypass Turkey. A [gas] plant would be built in Syria or Lebanon, which would liquefy the natural gas (LNG) and send it to Europe or Africa with LNG carriers. The pipeline would carry Iranian and Iraqi natural gas. In addition, Russia agreed with Syria to exploit Syria's offshore natural gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea."

The second project is the construction of a pipeline network that would connect the Middle East to Europe through Turkey—the Americans are behind it. A potential Qatar-Turkey pipeline passing through Syria would satisfy the demand. The problem is that it is obstructed by a "geographic wall" formed by Iran, Iraq and Syria, since Syria's President Bashar al-Assad did not agree to its construction. On the other hand, Assad did agree to the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline, which would have been constructed and managed by Gazprom.

As Europe and Turkey are Russia's main clients, one might speculate that Russia's main objective in the Middle East is to "block oil networks connecting the Middle East to Europe that are not controlled by the Russian Government." If these networks were created, it would likely hurt Russian energy sales in both Europe and Turkey.

As the dust begins to settle, a reflection of the energy-based posturing can be seen in the ongoing armed conflict: Russia and Iran are fighting in Syria and Iraq against Turkey, Saudi Arabia and their allies.

Russia and Iran are both supporting Assad, while Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting the Syrian rebels. The fact that the fight takes a sectarian aspect is related to the ethnic configuration of the region. But all those factors are bound to coalesce and take shape in the near future.

After considering the previous questions, new ones emerge. While pursuing its energy plans in the Middle East, would Russia repeat mistakes made by the United States, such as when it destroyed Iraq in order to lay its hands on its oil?

The author is an expert on international affairs and author of several books on the Middle East/North Africa region 

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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